VII. Saline County

The spring of 1826 brought flooding to the Missouri River. The following year was even worse, resulting in the destruction of much of Franklin. The town was largely abandoned—some residents relocated nearby to the newly formed town of New Franklin. (The county government had relocated to Fayette in 1823.) The Becknell home in the Missouri River bottom in Howard County opposite the Arrow Rock would have been destroyed. (Note 1.) By the spring of 1827 the family was living on the other side of the river in Saline County.

June 15, 1827 commission of William Becknell as Justice of the Peace (Saline Co., Mo., Deed Book A, p. 102)

June 15, 1827 commission of William Becknell as Justice of the Peace (Saline Co., Mo., Deed Book A, p. 102)

On June 15, Becknell was appointed to a four-year term as a Saline County justice of the peace for Arrow Rock Township. (Note 2.) His limited writing skills would have hindered his ability to carry out his duties, even with the assistance of his wife, whose vocabulary, grammar, and spelling all surpassed his. Few legal records such as deeds include Becknell’s name as the officiating justice of the peace. One surviving letter to Becknell, dated July 14, 1829, appears to have been written to him in his capacity as justice of the peace. (Note 3.)

With the birth of daughter Cornelia by 1828, all of the Becknell children had arrived. (Note 4.) The household appeared on a census for the first time in 1830, as shown in the following image.

Excerpt of 1830 U.S. Federal Census for Arrow Rock Township, Saline County, Mo.

Excerpt of 1830 U.S. Federal Census for Arrow Rock Township, Saline County, Mo.

In addition to William and Mary, the census lists a daughter under five (Cornelia), a daughter between ten and fifteen (Lucy), and a son between ten and fifteen (John). The eldest son, William, Jr., is missing from the list, either by mistake or perhaps living elsewhere. The eldest daughter, Mary Jane, is also missing—probably because she had just married John K. Rogers. (Note 5.) Also part of the household was Mary’s mother, Elizabeth Prichard, in her 60s. Finally, the Becknells owned five slaves: an adult man and woman and three children.

The flooding of 1826 and 1827 had, of course, destroyed other settlements along the river, including Cote Sans Dessein. This likely prompted Mary’s sister Hannah and her husband George Evans to abandon their home there and move to Arrow Rock, where they were listed in the 1830 census six entries after the Becknell household. (Note 6.) The known Evans children—Mary’s nieces and nephews—were Jesse Chribbs (13), William B. (10), Nancy Ann (5), Elizabeth (4), and Mary Jane (3). The youngest, George Washington Evans, Jr., would be born later in 1830. (Note 7.)

Also shown on the census near the Becknells was the household of Alonzo Pearson, who had moved west from Georgia in 1821. Shortly after his arrival in Missouri, Pearson had married Elizabeth “Eliza” Sappington, the eldest daughter of the prominent physician, Dr. John Sappington. By 1830 the couple had five children. Pearson had entered into business both with his father-in-law and with Erasmus “E.D.” Sappington, one of Dr. Sappington’s two sons. (Note 8.)

Signature on Dec. 30, 1829 letter from Mary Becknell to Alonzo Pearson (Sappington-Marmaduke Papers, Missouri History Museum)

Signature on Dec. 30, 1829 letter from Mary Becknell to Alonzo Pearson (Sappington-Marmaduke Papers, Missouri History Museum)

At the end of 1829, Mary Becknell made a written request to Pearson to deliver a letter to a man named Washington Jackson in Philadelphia. (Note 9.)  Pearson was about to leave for a trip east during the first months of 1830 to buy goods. (Note 10.)

As shown in the accompanying image, Mary wrote the letter from “Little Arrow Rock,” which was the traditional name of the site four miles upstream where Saline City would later be established. (Note 11.) It is apparent that the Becknell family was living on their riverbank property described in Part III at least at this particular time. (Note 12.)

Although Mary’s letter to Washington Jackson has not been found, her cover letter to Pearson says that it asks for information about the estate of her brother John, who apparently had died in the late 1820s. (Note 13.)

Mr. Pearson Sir
I have taken the liberty of sending a letter to your care for Mr. Washington Jackson of Phillidelphia which I wish you if possible to deliver in to his own hand. It consernes the estate of my brother Jon which Mr. Jackson on the death of my brother administerd. I wish the favoure of him to right to me by you and informe me of every perticular conserning it. If you will have the goodness to have my letter yourself you will confer a very perticular onor.

A postscript written in a different hand, perhaps her husband’s, notes that Jackson was a “hole sail merchant” in Philadelphia.

The Missouri Militia

Although Becknell had been discharged from the U.S. army in 1815 with the rank of ensign, he was soon after being referred to as “captain,” as noted in Part IV. The higher rank was undoubtedly the result of his continuing service in his county militia. A regional history published in 1881 describes the nature of the militia. (Note 14.)

In early days in Missouri and Saline county, all able-bodied men, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five, were required to organize into companies, choose officers, and meet at stated times and places for drill and exercise in military evolutions. The company commissioned officers were a captain and lieutenants. Companies were organized into battalions; battalions into regiments, with colonels, lieutenant-colonels, majors and other field officers; regiments into brigades, with a brigadier-general in command; brigades into divisions, with a major-general in command, and the whole under the charge of the governor, ex-officio commander-in-chief of the military forces of the state. . . .

All the drilling that was done, however, was not of a very effective sort. The drill-masters were not very efficient, to begin with, and their tactics differed very widely from the more modern ones of Hardee and Upton. Then the “troops” were undisciplined, and resented all attempts to force them to become the “machines” which the Duke of Wellington said all men should become, in order to be good soldiers. Indeed, general musters were only kept up and submitted to by the people, for a long time, on account of the “fun” that always attended them. The theory was a good one—that in time of peace people should prepare for war, and that a well regulated militia was necessary to the peace and security of a country; but, in practice, musters became troublesome, inconvenient, and unhandy, and productive of no good, and the legislature abolished the militia law about the time of the breaking out of the Mexican war. . . .

There was always fun at the musters, more or less in quantity and better or worse in quality. Great crowds attended the general musters. Old darkies were there with spruce beer and ginger cakes; refreshment stands abounded; horse races were made and run; foot-races, wrestling matches, and other athletic sports were indulged in, and many a fisticuff was fought on muster day. At all these things, and at the drilling and evolutions of the militiamen, the crowd stared and admired.

Given these circumstances, it is not surprising that records of Missouri militia activities are scarce. Occasionally, however, reports of hostile Indian activity would result in a muster of the militia and forays into other counties of the state. Mary Ellen Rowe has written that most such reports were false alarms, but an incident in 1829 caused a stir in central Missouri. (Note 15.)

In June, a band of Iowas returning to their old summer hunting grounds along the Chariton River encountered newly arrived settlers at a place known to Missourians as The Cabins. . . . In reports now spreading through northern Missouri, the small band of Iowas became an army of 1,500 savage warriors. . . . In Fayette, Brigadier General Ignatius P. Owen, the innkeeper commanding First Brigade, First Division, took charge. He dispatched county judge William Taylor to inform Governor John Miller of his actions. Miller called on federal authorities for regular troops, then hurried to Fayette to assert his authority over Owen. By the time the governor arrived, Owen had left for the battle site with 249 men. Major General Stephen Trigg, commander of the First Division and yet another old Indian fighter from Kentucky, had called out another 200. Accepting Owen’s exaggerated report, Miller approved these orders and called yet more men to prepare for action. He soon retracted that order, however, when no one could find any Indians to fight. There was no savage horde, no vast Indian conspiracy; only a small band of Iowas who fled beyond the reach of Missouri’s revenge at the first opportunity.

Captain Becknell’s militia company in Saline County was also called up by July, as reflected in two discharge pay vouchers he signed in August. (Note 16.) What, if anything, the Saline County militia did that summer is not known. Also unknown is the role that Alonzo Pearson played in the militia, although he wrote the following letter to Becknell. (Note 17.)

Head Quarters
Jonesborough 8th Augt 1829

Capt Wm Becknell
Comt of a Compy of Rangers

Dr Sir
Having been appointed Generalissimo & Commander in Chief of all the Forces west of the Mississippi River, both civil & military, and feeling a deep & lively interest in the honor & character of the corps which you have the honor to command I deem it of Sufficient importance to forward, by your Corporal, General orders & instructions which you will cause strictly to be complyed with, and have them carried into effect by the men under your command.

This caution & circumspection becomes the more necessary as the company which may properly be considered your rivals will not be recd. at head quarters, or called into service, and will therefore have a better opportunity of scrutinizing into the proceedings of your campaign and may perhaps endeavor to arraign you before me at Head Quarters. That you & your men may be on your guard I forward you General orders which you will have read to your men every morning.

Order 1st. You will proceed forthwith to the waters of the Osage and select some advisable & suitable position for encampment, where you will reconnoitre to a considerable distance – taking all the Indians you may find prisoners – treating them with clemency & mercy, but keeping them constantly at labor & service, as follows – to wit, Dressing Skins, Making Moccosins, Leggens & Breech Cloths – taking care under the severest penalties & inflictions that your men furnish them with skins – If they do not their wages will cease from that moment – their clothing taken from them and they suffered to wear nothing but a Breech Cloth & that of their own production & manufacture – You will also keep them at a respectfull distance from the Squaws and not even suffer them to look at them except through a noose or Breech cloth.

Order 2. As much depends upon good marksmen in time of action, you will drill & practice your men to such perfection that on your return to head quarters no man can be found who will be able to compete with them at a Target – for a noncompliance with this order each man shall forfeit half his wages during the campaign.

Order 3. You will by no means suffer your men to remain inactive, or active to no purpose, but as they are in the pay of the Government have their time spent to the best advantage – as follows – At all leisure times you will instruct them, at least such as have good eyesight in the science & mystery of Bee hunting. And after having found a sufficient quantity of rich good Honey, select some two or three dozen large hollow trees, with thin shells; sycamore if to be found, from 18 to 20 feet round. These you will cut off from 40 to 50 feet long & fill them with Honey stopping both ends with Bees wax, calling them the Osage Bee Gums – and after filling the aforesaid number as above required, compel the Indian Warriors, as a penace & punishment for former misdeeds & misdemeanor to pack or roll the aforesaid number of Osage Bee Gums to Head Quarters where they will be stored away to await the orders of Government.

You will see that these orders are strictly adhered to by your men.

My aid S. Martin Esqr. has made but one tour of duty – visiting, consoling & comforting the wives of your men. From accounts has succeeded to admiration – they think he has more than filled the places of their husbands.

Our best respects to yourself & all your Men. May Peace Success & plenty attend you.

Alonzo Pearson
Genmo Comt in Chief

Nothing about this letter can be taken at face value, nor is it obvious why it would have ended up in the records of the Sappington family. The letter reads like an April Fools joke —from Pearson’s self-described title of “Generalissimo” and overstated authority; to the outlandish orders involving marksmanship skills, Indian enslavement, and an enormous amount of honey; to the attentions paid by Pearson’s aide to the soldiers’ wives.

Or perhaps the letter portrays some instability in Pearson’s psyche. It would turn out that Pearson wasn’t exactly who he said he was.


Copyright 2012-2014 Gregory Hancks

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